Spring 2012 Books

1812: The Navy's War
By George C. Daughan
1812: The Navy’s War recounts the familiar tales of how American captains—men such as Stephen Decatur and Isaac Hull—bloodied the nose of Great Britain’s powerful navy. The exploits of the USS Constitution rank among the most famous: it dismasted and captured the HMS Guerriere in one skirmish and later defeated the HMS Java in an intense three-hour battle off Brazil, thus earning it the legendary sobriquet “Old Ironsides.” Although small and frequently outgunned, the U.S. Navy ranged from the interior waters of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific, inflicting much damage on British shipping in all three theaters of war.
George C. Daughan’s book is more comprehensive than the title might suggest. The author of If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—From the Revolution to the War of 1812 deftly situates the naval story within the broader contours of the war, exploring diplomacy, the dustup over impressment, the Napoleonic wars, and the ill-fated Canadian campaigns. Much of the book’s originality lies in its conclusion. Historians have long recognized the overmatched Navy’s exploits against the British colossus—a David-versus-Goliath contest—but they have tended to denigrate its strategic importance. Daughan argues that the naval captains’ bravery helped bring about a decisive change in European attitudes toward the United States.
“The Liverpool ministry’s cynical perpetuation of the war to expand British territory and dismember a rival had unintentionally amplified America’s maritime power,” the author asserts. “Instead of curbing a competitor, the British had markedly increased her strength.” London, as a result, not only accepted America’s independence but understood that a rising United States could prove to be a valuable ally. (Basic Books, 528 pages, $32.50)
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
By Candice Millard
Villains galore populate the pages of Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: Charles Guiteau, the deranged office seeker who stalked President James Garfield and shot him on July 2, 1881; D. Willard Bliss, the doctor who mishandled the treatment of the wounded president; and American medicine itself, which was so slow to embrace pathbreaking research into the causes of infection.
Then there was the victim, one of the most underrated and interesting politicians in U.S. history. Born in 1831 and orphaned at the age of two, Garfield grew up in poverty on an Ohio farm. Endowed with a first-rate intellect and a powerful work ethic, he managed to graduate from college, rise to the rank of general in the Civil War, and parlay his military service into a successful postwar career in Congress. In 1880 a deadlocked Republican convention turned to him as a compromise choice. But all this promise was cut short only months after he had entered the White House, when Guiteau shot him twice as he walked into Washington’s Union Station. The president survived, but his ordeal had only begun.
Millard’s most impressive accomplishment may be her ability to recapture an era. Destiny of the Republic transports the reader to 1880s Washington, vividly portraying the mundane (the White House was rat-infested and deteriorating) and the profound (the medical profession was backward). Alongside the villains were heroes such as Alexander Graham Bell, who invented a metal detector in a frantic effort to locate the bullet lodged near Garfield’s spine. (Bell’s effort failed when no one realized that the president’s mattress contained metal springs, a relatively new concept.) Joseph Lister, a British surgeon, struggled valiantly but unsuccessfully to persuade American physicians about the role of germs in causing infection. As Garfield’s doctors sought in vain to locate the bullet, they probed and prodded his insides with unsterilized fingers and instruments. Slowly and painfully, the president declined. On September 19, 1881, he died of “profound septic poisoning” and of hemorrhaging in his abdominal cavity. (Doubleday, 352 pages, $28.95)
The Battle of Midway
By Craig L. Symonds
Rarely has the tide of war turned in such a brief moment. Within eight minutes on June 4, 1942, American dive bombers crippled three Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway. Historians have long praised this victory as a “miracle” that effectively ensured that the United States—not Imperial Japan—would triumph in the Pacific theater. Craig L. Symonds begs to differ. The smashing American naval victory involved more than luck. The outcome rested on the actions of participants on both sides, especially by Japanese Adm. Yamamoto Isoroku, who so badly wanted to finish the job started at Pearl Harbor, and by his U.S. counterpart, the coolly calculating Adm. Chester Nimitz.
The Battle of Midway takes an in-depth look at the cultures of both navies and how they contributed to the battle’s outcome. Pivotal in Symonds’s story is the role of American code breakers, especially the efforts of Joseph J. Rochefort, who worked for OP-20-G, the Navy’s Code and Signals Section. He had been recruited in 1924 because his commander admired his ability to do crossword puzzles. By 1942, as head of the Combat Intelligence Unit, he was an experienced code breaker and an expert on both Japan’s culture and its military.